Authors: Elizabeth Nunez
Table of Contents
For my parents,
Waldo and Una Nunez
All men are created equal—all men, that is to say,
who possess umbrellas.
—E. M. FORSTER, HOWARDS END
“[Nunez] critiques colonialist assumptions about race and class in this ambitious reworking of
set in her native Trinidad in the early 1960s. . . . With its strong themes and dramatic ironies . . . readers will find her love story—which has a refreshingly happy ending— very sensitively told.”
“Nunez is a gifted writer, and her story not only recalls the despoiling of the Caribbean by Europeans, but brings hope for reconciliation and healing.”
is an] exquisite retelling of
is a rich story that moves back and forth easily between the past and the present, between reality and fantasy, and between falsely perceived truth and the truth that ultimately sets the characters free.”
Black Issues Book Review
is a] page-turning delight.”
“American Book Award winner Nunez . . . is in top form with this ambitious interpretation of Shakespeare’s
. . . . Along with characters who virtually demand attention, the novel’s intense imagery, powerful themes of race and class, and keen evocations of Caribbean land- and seascapes create a complex and emotional narrative with broad reader appeal.”
“Extremely deserving of its title, this gorgeous, meditative book is a graceful rendering of one couple’s journeys and explorations toward and away from each other. A moving love story, it shows us how a deferred dream can erode a marriage and how grace can sometimes put us to the test, even as it redeems.”
Breath, Eyes, Memory
“An exquisite love story . . . Once again, accomplished author Elizabeth Nunez lends readers her remarkable voice in this masterfully crafted story.”
“Highly recommended . . . a deeply felt and compassionate novel. Wise and resonant, it will strike a chord with readers.”
“Nunez is able to write the interior monologue of a changing mind, to show grace at work in the human heart.”
Book Street USA
“Nunez’s skill as a writer and storyteller is . . . evident.
speaks to our propensity for self-delusion that cripples our relationship with ourselves and with those we care deeply about.”
—Black Issues Book Review
Beyond the Limbo Silence
“This fine coming-of-age novel possesses the clarity—and courage—of an intensely personal narrative of the sixties.”
“[A] haunting story . . . [that] bears witness to the struggles of an African Caribbean woman as she seeks to find her place in America without selling her soul.”
—BEBE MOORE CAMPBELL,
Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine
“This powerful illumination of race and culture by the light of dreams, ritual, and Vodoun will remind many of Toni Morrison or Alice Walker.”
“The reader has the pleasure of experiencing Sara’s discovery of American life through Nunez’s wonderful, descriptive voice.”
The Bloomsbury Review
Winner of the American Book Award
“An American masterpiece . . . Elizabeth Nunez, a superbly gifted writer, has delivered a powerful and unsettling novel for all time and all people.”
“Hypnotic, searing . . . a story so explosive and disturbing, so brilliantly wrought, its images will haunt us in our dreams.”
Song of the Exile
“Nunez weaves a complex story of race, class, culture, and gender in a polyglot society rife with rumors and memories, superstitions, old grudges, and simmering tensions. This multilayered, beautifully textured novel pulls you in and holds you from beginning to end.”
“Moving, powerful, and haunting.”
Black Issues Book Review
“A complicated story to be relished and enjoyed by complicated people.
is a journey, no, a pilgrimage to the gulf between love and honor.”
Waiting in Vain, Satisfy My Soul,
“Elizabeth Nunez’s writing is lush and dense, like a rain forest letting in light. Her imagery is so rich, and mastery of storytelling so compelling and fluid, it’s hard to believe a woman is actually telling this story from a man’s point of view. Ms. Nunez has managed to capture the complexities of political responsibility and the burdens that come with it which interfere with passion and unfiltered love. I applaud her for helping me appreciate the dichotomy between pride and social obligation. A tough one. But she’s pulled it off. I recommend this novel ten times over. I was due for a smart, well-written novel with depth of breadth and scope, and I got it in
Waiting to Exhale
“In a writing style similar to the previous book,
which won the American Book Award, Nunez has created a complex story in
that still manages to provoke and entertain the reader from beginning to end.”
“A stunningly poetic novel that weaves together the threads of the African diaspora through the forbidden love of a man of Africa and a Caribbean woman . . .
reveals the aching loneliness of unfulfilled love, the longing for an ideal mate, and the dream of a perfect union. Nunez writes with the stroke of an artist and her gift for words creates a deep impression that will last long after the reader has reluctantly read her final chapter.”
“Right from the start of this haunting novel, Nunez adopts the mesmerizing myth-spinning voice of an oral storyteller. . . . In unaffected prose, Nunez explores self-deception, envy, Christian monogamy vs. African polygamy, and the very real dilemma of loving two people at once. . . . This rich, multilayered narrative is powerful in its sweep and moving in its insight.”
“A complex portrait of a love triangle by a gifted writer.”
“A captivating tale of Oufoula Sindede, an African diplomat in a passionless marriage who falls madly in love with Marguerite, a New York City artist.”
“[A] provocative new love story . . . Oufoula’s narrative voice . . . is spare and supple, continually twisting its way toward unexpected perspectives. . . .
delivers two memorable characters whose personal cultural clashes, both shared and internalized, are as telling as those of the world they inhabit.”
—The Seattle Times
“Wonderful. A real page-turner . . . It’s so rare to read anything that deals with the Caribbean, Africa, and the United States in such a seamless way.”
Crossing the River
“A mystical tale about love, passion, and the choices we make in life . . . a richly woven multilayered work that is riveting from the opening paragraph.”
Black Issues Book Review
My gratitude to Shakespeare for attributing some of his most lyrical lines to Caliban.
He tell a lie if he say those two don’t love one another. I know
them from when they was children. They do anything for one
another. I know. I see them. I watch them. I tell you he love she
and she love him back. They love one another. Bad. He never
rape she. Mr. Prospero lie.
Ariana, cook for Mr. Prospero, doctor
JOHN MUMSFORD put down the paper he had been reading and sighed. He did not want the case, but the commissioner had assigned it to him. Murder and robbery were the kinds of crimes he preferred to investigate. Hard crimes, not soft crimes where the evidence of criminality is circumstantial. He preferred a dead body, a ransacked house, a vault blown open, jewels and money missing, tangible evidence of wrongdoing, not cases that depended on
In 1961 no one had figured out that dried sperm on a woman’s dress could be traced irrefutably to its source, at least no one in the police department in Trinidad. So as far as Mumsford was concerned, notwithstanding the fact that there could be some damage to the woman—torn clothing, scratches on the body, sometimes blood—these matters of rape were better handled as domestic quarrels, some of which could certainly end in murder, but in the absence of murder, not worth pursuing. In the end, there was always a persuasive argument to be made about a woman dressed provocatively, a woman alone, in the wrong place, in the dead of night. A woman flirting. A woman asking for it.
There was the case the week before, buried in
on the fifth page. A black woman from Laventille had filed a complaint with the police claiming that her fifteen-year-old daughter had been gang-raped in a nightclub in Port of Spain by three American sailors who had locked her in the restroom and stuffed her mouth with toilet paper. The reporter presented the facts as they were apparently given to him by the mother of the fifteen-year-old, but he went on to comment on the sad conditions of life for the residents of Laventille: “Houses, no hovels,” he wrote, “packed one on top of the other, garbage everywhere, children in rags, young people without hope, dependent on charity. It’s no wonder.”
That “no wonder” set off a deluge of letters to the newspaper. Four days later, on its second page,
printed three. “A wonder, what?” one person wrote. “A wonder that her mother wasn’t in the nightclub also selling her body? What do those women expect when they dress up in tight clothes and go to those clubs? Everybody knows the American sailors go there for cheap girls. She had it coming. How could her mother in good conscience call what happened to her daughter rape?”
That seemed to be the consensus of God-fearing people on the island. Soon witnesses surfaced who swore they had seen the girl the night before with the same three sailors.
Mumsford agreed with the consensus: The girl had asked for it. Yet for no other reason than that the hairs on the back of his neck stood up at the mere mention of Americans, he also believed that the sailors had taken advantage of her.
It was a matter of schadenfreude, of course. Mumsford was English, and though he readily admitted his country had needed the Americans during the war, they irritated him. They were too boisterous, too happy-go-lucky, he thought. They waved dollar bills around as if they were useless pieces of paper; they laughed too loudly, got too friendly with the natives.
Trinidad’s black bourgeoisie didn’t approve of the Americans either, but they knew it was the English colonists who had given them this leave to swagger into town as if they owned the island. Which, indeed, they did, partially, that is, when the British gave them Chaguaramas, on the northwest coast of the island, not far from the capital, Port of Spain, to set down a naval base, and then Waller Field in central Trinidad, for the air force. It helped that the British explained that they needed the twenty battleships the Americans offered in exchange, but not enough to quell rancor in some who were making the American military bases a cause célèbre in their demands for independence.
Still, the simmering resentment of the American presence, shared by both the colonizers and the colonized, though for different reasons, was not enough to gain sympathy for the girl. How could it be rape when she was dressed like that, a fifteen-year-old girl with her bosom popping out of a tight red jersey top, and a skirt so short that, according to the nightclub owner, you could see her panties?
But, of course, the case the commissioner had assigned him was different. The woman in question, the victim, was English; the accused, the perpetrator, the brute, was a colored man.
The commissioner himself had come down to the station where Mumsford was posted and had spoken to him in private. “Mumsford,” he said, “you are the only one I can trust with this job.”
The job involved going to the scene of the crime, Chacachacare, a tiny, desolate island off the northwest coast of Trinidad, where the reputed rape had occurred, and taking the deposition of Dr. Peter Gardner, an Englishman, who had lodged the complaint on behalf of his fifteen-year-old daughter, Virginia.
“It is a delicate matter, you understand,” the commissioner said. “Not for a colored man’s ears or eyes.”
The commissioner was himself Trinidadian. He was born in Trinidad, as were his parents and grandparents and great-great-grandparents. He was what the people in Trinidad called a French Creole. He was white. That is, his skin was the color of what white people called white, though it was tanned a golden brown from generations in the sun. Local gossip had it, though, that none of the white people in Trinidad whose families went back so many generations had escaped the tar brush, and indeed the telltale signs of the tar brush were evident in the commissioner’s high cheekbones, his wide mouth and full lips, and in the curl that persisted in his thick brown hair. These features made him handsome, but skittish, too, for he had a deep-seated fear of being exposed, of finding himself in good company confronted by a man whose resemblance left no doubt that he was a relative with ancestors who had come from Africa.
The French had come in 1777 at the invitation of the king of Spain, who had neither the time nor the inclination to develop the island, one of the smallest of his “discoveries” in the New World. Preoccupied with the more alluring possibilities of gold in El Dorado on the South American continent, the king opened Trinidad to the French, who already had thriving plantations on the more northerly West Indian islands, thanks to slave labor from Africans they had captured on the west coast of Africa. The Spanish king thought he had struck a clever bargain, a cheap way to clear the bush in Trinidad while he was busy with weightier matters. The French brought thousands of African slaves to Trinidad from Martinique and Guadeloupe. Twenty years later, in 1797, the British seized Trinidad from the Spanish, but the French stayed on, claiming ownership of large plots of land, even after Emancipation in 1834.
Mumsford knew something of this history. He knew, too, that though the French Creoles on the island were linked to the English by the color of their skin, they were, nevertheless, culturally bonded to the Africans in Trinidad who had raised their children. More than once this knowledge had caused him to wonder whether, in a time of crisis, he could count on the commissioner’s loyalty. Would he side with the English, or would he suddenly be gripped by misguided patriotism and join forces with the black people on the island? He was always a little put off by the commissioner’s singsong Trinidadian English, though he had no quarrel with his grammar. On the question, however, of how to respond to Dr. Gardner’s allegation, the commissioner put him completely at ease.
” the commissioner said, stressing the
and sending Mumsford a knowing look that sealed his trust, “can be depended upon with a matter of this delicacy. Don’t forget, Mumsford, that girl, Ariana, has already come up with her own lies and can make a mess of this for all of us.”
The commissioner had a French-sounding last name, but Mumsford was satisfied that he was on his side.
Mumsford picked up the paper he had shoved aside and read Ariana’s statement again.
He never rape her.
She had written
but he could not get his tongue to say it. Dropping the
from the verb was bad enough.
“Attempted rape, not rape,” the commissioner had cautioned him. “In fact, Mumsford,” he said, “if you can avoid using that word at all, so much the better. We can’t have that stain on a white woman’s honor.”
And so it would have been—the nightmare of any red-blooded Englishman who had brought wife, daughters, sisters to these dark colonies—had that man, that savage, managed to do what no doubt had been his intention.
He had to remember to be careful then. It was not a rape, not even an attempted rape. There was no consummation. He must not give even the slightest suggestion that consummation could have been possible, that the purity of an English woman, that her unblemished flower, had been desecrated by a black man.
The woman, Ariana, had not put her letter in an envelope. She had glued together the ends of the paper with a paste she had made with flour and water. Mumsford was sure it was flour and water she had used, not store-bought glue. He was there when the commissioner slit open the letter. The dried dough, already cracked, crumbled in pieces, white dust scattering everywhere. He had leaned forward to clear the specks off the commissioner’s desk and was in mid-sentence, rebuking Ariana for her lack of consideration for others—“What with the desk now covered in her mess”—when the commissioner interrupted him. It was good she had sealed it, whatever she had used, the commissioner said. They needed to be discreet. Then he paused, scratched his head, and added, “Though there is no guarantee she has not told the boatman. People here talk.” He wagged his finger at Mumsford. No, they had to nip this in the bud. If they were not careful, the whole island would soon be repeating her version of what had happened on that godforsaken island. Soon they would be whispering that a white woman had fallen in love with a colored boy.
“ ‘I tell you he love she and she love him back.’ ” The commissioner read Ariana’s words aloud. He threw back his head and laughed bitterly. “A total fabrication,” he said. “How could it be otherwise?”
Mumsford did not need convincing.
They love one another. Bad.
That had to be a lie.
But it was not only Ariana’s reference to rape and the pack of lies she wrote in defense of the colored boy that irritated Mumsford this morning. It was also her presumption—what he called the carnival mentality of the islanders, their tendency to trivialize everything, to make a joke of the most serious of matters, turning them into calypsos and then playing out their stories in the streets, in broad daylight, on their two-day Carnival, dressed in their ragtag costumes. Yes, an English doctor of high repute would be addressed as Mister, but he was sure Ariana did not know that, and certain that she knew that the doctor’s name was not Prospero, but Gardner. He was Dr. Peter Gardner— Gardner, a proper English name—not Mr. Prospero, doctor, as she had scrawled next to her name.
Ordinarily Mumsford would have left it at that, dismissed the name Ariana had given to Dr. Peter Gardner as some unkind sobriquet, loaded with innuendo, taken from one of those long-winded tales the calypso-rhyming, carnival-dancing, rum-drinking natives told endlessly. For Prospero had no particular significance to Mumsford, though he had guessed correctly that it was the name of a character in a story. What story (it was a play by Shakespeare, his last) he did not know. Mumsford was a civil servant who had worked his way through the ranks of Her Majesty’s police force. Like all English schoolboys he had read Charles Lamb, not the plays, and then not the story about Prospero. Nevertheless, he was on a special assignment and could leave nothing to chance. He had the honor of an Englishwoman to protect. So he made a note to himself to question Ariana.
Question for Ariana,
he wrote in his notebook.
Why do you call Dr. Gardner Prospero?
He would have to speak to her separately, not in the presence of Dr. Gardner. That was the directive from the commissioner. Mumsford would have preferred otherwise. He wanted to expose her in front of Dr. Gardner for the liar she was, but when he argued his point, the commissioner stopped him. “I don’t think that would be wise,” he said.
For a brief moment, the tiniest sliver of a gap opened up between the Englishman and the French Creole. Would he, in the end, choose
? the Englishman wondered. For they could not always be depended upon to be grateful, even the white ones born here. The man stirring up trouble in the streets of Port of Spain with his call for independence was not grateful. And yet there were few on the island that England had done more for. England had educated him, England had paid his way to Oxford, but when he returned to Trinidad, the ungrateful wretch bit the hand that fed him:
Thousands were gathering behind him.
“You mean Eric Williams?” he asked the commissioner.
The commissioner ignored the question but he winked at him when he said, “We’ll have time sufficient to deal with the girl.”
Was the wink conspiratorial? Did he mean that England still had time in spite of the ravings of this troublemaking politician?
Mumsford tried again. “This is still a Crown Colony,” he said.
The commissioner slapped him on the back. “Let’s not cause the good doctor more grief, okay, Inspector?”
Mumsford had to be satisfied with his response, for the commissioner kept his hand firmly on the small of Mumsford’s back and didn’t remove it until he had walked the inspector out of his office.
But though Mumsford could not say with certainty whether or not the commissioner sided with the Crown or with the burgeoning movement for independence, on the matter of race the commissioner had made himself clear. He would protect a white woman from malicious insinuations. Mumsford was to go alone to Chacachacare without his usual police partner, who was a colored Trinidadian, and, therefore, as the commissioner pointed out, could not be trusted to be objective.